Second guessing our internal clocks is not unusual. When clocks spring forward or fall back to accommodate Daylight Savings Time or Standard Time, that shadow of doubt about time can appear especially long. Arranging to Skype with my daughter who lives in a time zone six hours ahead of my own causes me to regularly consider what ‘now’ means to each of us.
To a young child, time is even more elusive. Some adults envy children’s ability to live in the moment, but young children struggle to make sense of ideas such as future and past. Children need concrete ways to understand these abstract concepts.
Have you ever explained time to a young child in your life by saying something like “Only four more sleeps until your birthday!”? If you have, consider yourself brilliant. Using children’s repeated daily experiences helps them recognize their internal predictable patterns of alertness and fatigue, as well as the external patterns of time they can see, hear, feel, and smell. Visually, daylight dims to darkness; the sun gives way to moon and stars. The sounds of birds, insects, wind, as well as household activities typically change between day and night too. Even the feel of heat and moisture on skin typically alters between day and night. Children experience the patterns of seasons through their five senses too and come to understand that spring, summer, autumn, and winter never vary from their cyclical course.
Time is mathematical. We measure it and assign it numerical values and explain its quantity with mathematical vocabulary such as seconds, decades, or millenniums. Yet it is our understanding of time as patterns that underpins why we track age, why we talk about the minutes or hours it takes to ride the bus to school, or why we interpret the numbers displayed on clocks in the morning to know if it’s time to ‘rise and shine.’
Books and stories involving concepts of time strengthen children’s developing understanding of time too. The Ontario Ministry of Education’s Kindergarten Program encourages educators to use books to help children clarify and solidify their understanding of math. “Reading books aloud and in shared reading context provides real links between literature and mathematical ideas, since some stories use mathematical terminology… or illustrations of mathematical concepts. Reading can also give children a sense of how mathematics is connected with other aspects of life...” (The Kindergarten Program, p. 82)
Children as young as toddlers learn about time through playful books such as “Hey! Wake Up!” and “Pajama Time!” by Sandra Boynton.
Preschoolers learn about patterns of the moon as it waxes and wanes each night through the gentle, well-crafted story of “Papa Please Get the Moon for Me?” by Eric Carle. Children learn about minutes through Jill Murphy’s book entitled “Five Minutes Peace”. In this story Mrs. Large, a mother elephant, seeks five minutes of solitude. She succeeds at finding 3 minutes and 45 seconds for rest and renewal.
Older preschoolers and primary school age children discover more scientific explanations of time through books that clearly link the measurements of time with patterns in nature. Non-fiction books such as “Sun Up, Sun Down: The Story of Day and Night” by Jacqui Bailey, “Sunshine Makes the Seasons” by Franklyn M. Branley, and “The Reasons for Seasons” by Gail Gibbons are just a few titles with this focus.
Time and its observable patterns are part of every child’s life. As we talk and read together we can help children understand how; when we take the time.